Every day I woke up daring to hope that the previous day, month, year had been a nightmare and that I was waking up to my real life.
This day was going to be my real life. I would see real curtains on the window. My bedroom would be clean, with sheets on my bed, washed recently by my sweet mother. There would be breakfast on the table when I went downstairs. Maybe freshly cooked eggs, toast, juice, milk.
My father would greet me with a hug or even an absent-minded pat on the head and my brother and sisters would be bickering over who got the funnies from the daily newspaper first.
I would finish my breakfast, gather my schoolbooks, and my mother, sweet-smelling and smiling, would hand me my lunch bag that she had filled with a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and something sweet she had baked the day before: a cookie or maybe some fruit-filled pastry she was well-known for. She would remind me that I had a book report due on Friday. I would reassure her that I was well into it and that of course it would be handed in on time. A hug.. and I would be off, holding my little sister’s hand as we went the two blocks to school.
(That’s the sound of an old vinyl record being shoved out of whack.)
What I awaken to instead is a cold wind blowing through the place where the unfinished wallboard meets the uninsulated attic space we called a bedroom. There were three such rooms: mine, my brother Jimmy’s, and my sister Dale’s.
I awake to my alarm clock beeping out and I reach over to shoot if off before it can wake up Jimmy and Dale. I have things to do before they need to be up.
I go downstairs to see that my mother is ready to head out or has already gone to her job at the floral plant. She works there making preserved eucalyptus stems and preserved ferns for wholesale florists. It is nasty, hard work and she barely makes minimum wage. She does not pack my lunch or my sister and brother’s lunch. That’s up to 10-year-old me.
It’s also my job to iron my school dress as well as my sister’s and also to iron my father’s work shirt. It is pale blue and one of the new no-iron fabrics that isn’t truly no-iron.
I heat the iron up and pull up a chair to the ironing board so I can reach better. While the iron heats up I start cooking my father’s breakfast. He is in the tiny bathroom right off the kitchen, having his morning poop and reading his book. He takes exactly 10 minutes. And you do not interrupt him! Ever!
I crack two eggs into the bacon drippings in the ancient cast iron skillet and push two pieces of white bread into the toaster. I cook them sunny side up with the ease of a short order cook in a greasy spoon. As I slide them onto the plate the toast pops up and I slather them with margarine, never butter.
I pour the coffee for Dad that my mother did manage to make before she left since she needs her two cups more than she needs family time. He takes his with exactly one teaspoon of sugar, no milk.
I place his plate of eggs and toast in front of him and he stirs his already prepared coffee distractedly while reading his current paperback book. He barely raises his eyes to acknowledge me, I iron his shirt which gives of a noxious smell unique to that perma-press material. I place it on a wire hanger and hang that on a hook on the kitchen wall.
I go to wake my siblings. Jimmy needs to be yelled at over several minute intervals if I am to get him motivated to come downstairs. Dale comes down and I pour her cold cereal. The milk is generic canned condensed milk mixed with equal an amount of water from the tap.
She finishes eating and I tell her to brush her teeth and get dressed. I yell up the stairs to Jimmy one more time. He finally comes down, plunks himself next to Dale and pours a big bowl of cornflakes, then proceeds to dump several spoonsful of sugar and some milk into it. He eats with gusto while poking Dale with his bare foot. She shrieks and whacks him on the arm. He says “What was that for?” as if he didn’t know.